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Story of Jumbo the African Circus Elephant

Updated on September 14, 2014

Jumbo The Elephant Story

Jumbo was probably the most famous elephant in American history. The elephant even got a movie made about its life in 1962. He was a Victorian-era superstar who traveled from continent to continent, just like some human celebrities. Jumbo was the world's first true celebrity elephant.

Jumbo the Elephant
Jumbo the Elephant

Story of Jumbo the Elephant

A large African bush elephant named Jumbo was born in 1861. He was a Victorian-era superstar who traveled from continent to continent, just like some human celebrities. Jumbo was the world's first true celebrity elephant. His mother was hunted and killed not long after his birth. Jumbo was also called the most famous circus elephant and the greatest elephant in the world by many people at that time. Jumbo's height was estimated to be around 3.2 m in the London Zoo, was claimed to be about 4 m by the time of his death.

The story begins when a scrawny baby elephant who had been ripped from its mother was exported to Europe. The crowds were flocking to zoos hoping to see an African elephant which had never been seen in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire.

The small young elephant landed first in France and kept in the old zoo Jardin des Plantes (one of the top two zoos in Europe) where he was exhibited with an African female, Alice. At the Jardin, Jumbo was overshadowed by the more popular elephant pair Pollux and Castor. Jumbo was badly neglected.

The other top zoo in Europe - the London Zoological Gardens was desperate for an African elephant. Because of this, they proposed an exchange for one of the African elephants in the Paris zoo. The French finally agreed and in exchange for an elephant they will receive a rhinoceros, a jackal, two dingoes, a kangaroo, a possum and a pair of eagles.

In 1865, Jumbo and Alice was transferred to London Zoo where the elephant became famous for giving rides to visitors, especially children. Over the course of 16 years Jumbo carried thousands of people (mostly children) on his back, including Queen Victoria's children, Prince of Wales and a young Winston Churchill. The zoo was at a peak of popularity and the main star attraction was Jumbo.

Unfortunately, the amiable Jumbo sometimes became too intractable and often frightened many of the zoo officials. Fearing some accident, this huge creature was sold for $10,000 to Barnum (owner of the Barnum & Bailey Circus) for his circus in America.

The arrival of Jumbo in New York was a great event stage managed by Barnum. Jumbo became even more popular as "Jumbo mania" gripped the nation. Many people came to see this spectacular animal. A year after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, Barnum demonstrated his elephants on parade across the structure. Jumbo led the procession.

Jumbo toured with the circus for several years but it wasn't long enough before the tragedy struck. Jumbo died in an accident at a railroad classification yard in St. Thomas Ontario, Canada where he was crushed by a freight train.

Jumbo elephant
Jumbo elephant

Interesting Facts

When Barnum had offered to buy Jumbo, as many as 100,000 school children wrote and beg to Queen Victoria not to sell the animal.

Jumbo was exhibited by Barnum in New York at Madison Square Garden, the enermous crowds had made him earned enough to recoup the money he spent to buy the elephant.

Jumbo got its name from his keepers in the London zoo, and due to the Barnum's promotion, the word "jumbo" entered the English language. Today, we have everything from "jumbo jets" to "jumbo drinks".

After Jumbo was killed in an accident, Barnum told a fanciful story that the elephant had died while trying to protect a younger circus elephant from wandering near the train tracks.

The central character of Walt Disney's 'Dumbo' the Flying Elephant was named after Jumbo (cruelly nicknamed within the story as "Dumbo").

In 1985, a life-size statue of Jumbo was erected in St. Thomas in order to commemorate the centennial of the elephant's death.

When William Burnip (the engineer whose train struck Jumbo) was spending the rest of his years travelling around, he visit his son in San Fransisco, he was killed in the "Great Earthquake" which destroyed so much of the city.

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